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Atlanta’s Julian Gressel making strong impression as ROTY candidate

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In the United States, U.S. Men’s National Team star Christian Pulisic continues to make waves overseas after forgoing college and the opportunity to play in Major League Soccer.

While his case is a bit different, one of Atlanta United’s young stars has taken a path less traveled, but is finding similar success in his first season in MLS.

Julian Gressel was drafted in the first round of the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, after boasting a strong college soccer career with Providence. The 23-year-old finished second all-time in school history in goals, while making a strong name for himself on the American soccer scene prior to being drafted in January.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan considering U.S. Soccer presidency run ]

Pro Soccer Talk had the chance to catch up with Gressel as the Atlanta rookie and his side prepare for their final match of the regular season before the MLS Cup Playoffs.

“It definitely helped because you get competitive games in and obviously also get national recognition from within the college system from playing in a big conference and going to a good school like Providence,” Gressel said in regards to playing in the Big East — one of the traditional power soccer conferences. “We made it really far in the NCAA tournament as well so it wasn’t just the Big East. The conference usually has three, four, sometimes five really good teams that make it to NCAAs, so it really helped me develop as a player.”

Although it’s become a common path for players not just in Germany, but throughout Europe and other prominent soccer regions, to pursue a professional career without much schooling beyond high school, Gressel opted to better himself both on and off the pitch.

“It was mostly school that was just a way for me to have a chance to do something after soccer,” Gressel said. “In Germany, I probably would’ve had the chance to play in the third or fourth division. Possibly 2.Bundesliga, but I only had a high school degree and I didn’t want to leave it at that.

The first-year MLSer finished with a degree in business management at Providence.

Gressel plied his trade with several smaller German sides prior to his arrival in the U.S., including FC Eintracht Bamberg of the Landesliga Bayern-Nordwest in Germany’s sixth-flight.

Like many other players that weren’t accustomed to following MLS across the pond, Gressel wasn’t certain what the league would bring for him, however, he didn’t buy into any misconceptions about it.

“I honestly didn’t follow MLS before coming here,” Gressel said . “As I came here my roommates and I started watching games basically every weekend and I also got to go to Gillette Stadium as a freshman to get my first live game with the Revolution.

“That experience gave me a bigger look at the league and then I figured out more about MLS as time has gone on and I’ve spent more time in the United States.”

“I always knew it was a difficult league and there were too many misconceptions overseas that the speed of play is slower in MLS and other things like that. I wanted to experience it [MLS] myself first before making an assessment.”

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With one match remaining in the regular season, Gressel has tallied an impressive five goal and nine assists, while starting 23 matches for Atlanta.

Gressel will surely be in the running for Rookie of the Year, along with Minnesota forward Abu Danladi, Jack Elliott of the Philadelphia Union and others. However, it has been Gressel’s ability to put together a complete season that really separates him from the pack.

The first-year attacking player has shown his technical ability throughout his rookie campaign (as seen in the video below), but Gressel believes that while he does exhibit a fair amount of composure, that it also helps playing alongside budding stars like Miguel Almiron and Atlanta’s top goalscorer, Josef Martinez

“It helps having the guys on my team that I get to play around as well,” Gressel continued. “Miguel [Almiron] and Josef [Martinez] are some of the guys that help elevate my game on a weekly basis. And you never want to be the one that lets your team down so that’s always another motivational factor. You don’t want to play that bad pass that breaks down an attack.”

In addition to being the beneficiary of playing with good teammates, Gressel has had the opportunity in his first season to play under one Gerardo “Tata” Martino — widely regarded as one of the top-tier managers around the world.

[ MORE: D.C. United’s Bill Hamid exploring European options ]

Most are aware of his time at Barcelona, but Martino’s expertise goes beyond that — including managing the Paraguayan and Argentine national teams.

To Gressel, it’s no surprise that Martino’s name has gained some traction as a potential boss for the USMNT following Bruce Arena’s decision to leave the Americans last week.

“I think he’s a great manager,” Gressel told PST. “He has great ideas tactically. He’s definitely the best I’ve ever seen or had the opportunity to work around. I haven’t been around so long, but tactically he has ideas that I never would’ve imagined and then they end up working. He’s one of the greatest coaches out there.

“It’s no secret that he’s had success with other national teams beyond just performing well at the club level. To have this rumor out there it’s pretty clear that people view him highly. I’m not sure how well he’d work because of the language barrier, which doesn’t help.

“It’s up to U.S. Soccer at the end of the day, but I hope he stays with me and the guys here for longer because I learn so much every single day.”

Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap official (video)

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Arsenal and Manchester United have completed their American-style trade, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan joining the Gunners and Alexis Sanchez on board the Red Devils’ train.

Both 29 years old, the playmakers arrive at their new homes with plenty to prove.

More to come…

One player for each of the Premier League’s Top Six

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The Premier League’s transfer window is going to close within the next two weeks, and each of the big boys feels a need to find help in at least one position on the field.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Manchester City: Yes, it’s laughable that City would require another piece; They’ll be fine either way. But injuries to Fabian Delph and Benjamin Mendy and lack of faith in Danilo does mean that left back would be a spot of interest for Pep Guardiola. This is not shot at young Oleksandar Zinchenko, but City wants at least a treble. This is why City is being linked with Fred, who can play at left back as well as his traditional center mid. It makes sense.

Manchester United: Yeah, yeah, Alexis Sanchez, we know. But with Michael Carrick retiring and Ander Herrera‘s surprising lack of consistent starting time, perhaps Jose Mourinho is aiming for more presence in the center of the park. It betrays things in terms of age, but Lassana Diarra is a free agent and could provide the competition United craves at an easy-to-digest budgetary addition.

Chelsea: Adding Ross Barkley was a nice pick-up, but depth behind Alvaro Morata is clearly a desire for Antonio Conte considering the names which have been linked with Stamford Bridge: Andy Carroll, Ashley Barnes, Edin Dzeko, Peter Crouch. West Ham might like a Carroll-for-Batshuayi swap, and the big Englishman would be a huge get for the Blues should he stay healthy. We wonder if newly available loan target Andre Schurrle has any love left for Chelsea

Liverpool: Here’s a name you probably expected in the City portion of this post: Johnny Evans. The ex-Manchester United defender may be on the move from West Brom, and pairing him with Virgil Van Dijk would give Jurgen Klopp‘s 4-4-2 perhaps the toughest center back pairing in England. Obviously pushing the Naby Keita transfer earlier would be way more effective for Klopp’s project, but it is extremely unlikely to happen in January. So we stick with Evans. Bold statement: With Evans, Liverpool could post the most points in the PL the rest of the way. With Evans and Keita, they’ll be a favorite to rival Man City next season.

Tottenham Hotspur: This club is very, very good and two deep at nearly every position. Heck, Victor Wanyama can’t even get on the field. That’s why it makes sense that the club’s been linked with unfinished project Malcom as well as Schurrle, who Bordeaux said today will not be moving in January. So while that’s the name we’d choose, we’ll instead nod to Cagliari youngster and Golden Boy nominee Nicolo Barella, whose name continues to pop up as a target of several top clubs in the Premier League.

Arsenal: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would be nice, and forward is being magnified as a position at the Emirates Stadium thanks largely to a slow period for the very good Alexandre Lacazette. But his numbers are going to increase with (probably, almost certainly) Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mesut Ozil as twin playmakers, the former who will be motivated to prove his Manchester United critics wrong (See his amazing final Bundesliga season for hope, Gunners fans).

So we’ll seek Arsenal help closer to the back, where they need center back experience thanks to the predictable slide of Per Mertesacker and the unpredictable dip in form of Laurent Koscielny. Man, Evans is a good shout here, but we’ll go off the board completely and speculate that Ajax teen center back Matthijs de Ligt is a very Arsene Wenger type player. In other words: instantly effective or not, how Wenger would it be to add a teenage CB? In a window in which he’s (maybe) sated those who want both a playmaker (Mkhitaryan) and striker (Aubameyang), that seems pretty possible.

LA Galaxy looks set for massive turnaround

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Major League Soccer’s parity lends itself to dramatic turnarounds, and 2018 should be no different.

[ MORE: High profile loan for Palace ]

We’ll detail several in the run-up to the 2018 season, but the confirmation that Chris Pontius is taking his talents to Carson really blasts one side’s turn-around into the stratosphere.

Part of this admittedly feels like cheating considering the LA Galaxy’s awful 2017 campaign may have always been destined to be a one-off after suffering through a miserable season under Curt Onalfo and Sigi Schmid.

At the risk of carrying Bruce Arena vitriol from the USMNT realm and into MLS, this was about more than him. Part of it was happenstance: The Galaxy were one of just two teams to finish below .500 at home, and they were absolutely miserable there.

The other part was the departure of so many parts of their 2016 base: Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard, Mike Magee, and Alan Gordon all left after accounting for 22 goals and 18 assists. Gerrard, for what it’s worth, never overcame league-wide fan perception of his worth and was responsible for 11 assists.

Throw in Gyasi Zardes’ continued regression and both his, Sebastian Lletget‘s and Jermaine Jones’ battles with injuries, and the Galaxy were up against it despite their status as a flagship institution of MLS competition (We got this far without mentioning Jelle van Damme’s desire to go home, which was granted before the end of August).

Now Zardes is gone. That’s a more than acceptable loss as the Galaxy sent a lot of money to land Ola Kamara, who will join up with Pontius, Romain Alessandrini, Giovani dos Santos, Jonathan dos Santos, Perry Kitchen, and Lletget to form a verifiably solid front. David Bingham arrives to steady the back, too.

Plus, there are rumors of Ross McCormack arriving on loan, with Colorado and Orlando (another flip candidate) in the running as well.

In a world where the Galaxy weren’t dead last in the league, Alessandrini would’ve been an MVP candidate last season.

The West was largely underwhelming last season, as seventh place FC Dallas simultaneously finished just seven points shy of first while also missing the playoffs. LA could flip its script as dramatically as 2017 Chicago, and this should be a wonderful West Coast battle given Bob Bradley and the excitement across town.

West Brom: Evans relegation release reportedly just $4m

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Jonny Evans has been fantastic for West Bromwich Albion this season, shepherding the Baggies back line while being involved in as many goals as any player not named Salomon Rondon or Jay Rodriguez.

[ MORE: High profile loan for Palace ]

So it would make sense for West Brom to hang onto the player at almost all costs given its status as a team in danger of the drop after its slow start under Tony Pulis has kept its lackluster pace under Alan Pardew.

Here’s the rub: Some big clubs would like to purchase Evans, who has 18 months left on his deal but reportedly no interest in signing a new deal the Hawthorns. Even worse? Monday’s story that a Baggies’ relegation would make his buyout clause just over $4 million.

Defenders who cost more last summer on the Premier League market include Jan Bednarek, Nathan Ake, Victor Lindelof, Harry Maguire, Michael Keane, Florian Lejeune, Mathias Jorgensen, Andrew Robertson, Bruno Martins Indi, and many others.

Heck, Evans’ buyout clause is the same price Derby County paid Liverpool for Andre Wisdom. And these fees are all pre-Virgil Van Dijk to Liverpool madness.

Considering only Swansea and Brighton have scored fewer league goals than the Baggies, who are just now committing to a two-striker approach under Pardew, does it make sense for West Brom to sell now?

Evans’ value at 18 months out will be more than it is at 12 months out even if the Baggies avoid relegation, but he’s possibly a lynch pin of the team. And the volatile value for attackers mean the $25-35 million he’d generate may not make for like-for-like value.

It’s not an easy decision, but desperate times call for similar measures. The Baggies have played in four nil-nils this season, and lost 1-0 to relegation rivals Southampton and Huddersfield Town away. Both of the reverse fixtures remain.

There are creative options here, too. Would Jurgen Klopp sanction a high(ish) profile attacker loan to WBA in order to pair Evans with Van Dijk? Same for Pep Guardiola at Man City?